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Wednesday, November 04, 2009

The Process(ing) of War: Creative Public Spaces for Veteran Storytelling and Reintegration

I'm spending the day today preparing for my facilitator duties at tomorrow's NIU Veterans Club Community Roundtable.

It's always a great honor to listen to the stories and thoughts of our local vets. And there are many, many such initiatives, big and small, gaining ground across the country.

Community members -- professionals and lay men and women of every skill set and sort -- are finding ways to help veterans process their experiences of combat while supporting their move from military life back into the civilian stream.

Educational institutions, in particular, are finding interesting ways of engaging on the issue and creating spaces for these necessary reflections. For instance, at NIU, Dr. Jeffrey Chown -- The Communication Department's Presidential Teaching Professor in Media Studies -- has been leading the charge.

In educational interest, article(s) quoted from extensively.

A few years back, I took a special COMS section, "Iraq War on Film." It remains one of my favorite classroom experiences because it brought together every type of individual imaginable: veterans from current and previous conflicts; Middle Eastern exchange students; military girlfriends and family members; a civilian contractor; health care workers; COMS majors and others who were simply wishing to learn more about the issue.

Professor Chown went on to teach a number of other sections in the series, which culminated in a forthcoming documentary featuring interviews done with local vets. (Thank you, Dr. Chown, for letting me see a rough cut of the clips a while back.)

Why is all of this interplay and exchange so important?

Dr. Edward Tick writes in his book, War and the Soul:

“According to author and healer Deena Metzger, a story is a ‘map for the soul.’ It is ‘a living thing. A divine gift.’ When we tell our own stories and listen to those of others, we come in touch with all tree: life, divinity, and soul.

Telling our story is a way of preserving our individual history and at the same time defining our place in the larger flow of events. It reveals patterns and meaning that we might otherwise miss as we go about the mundane activities of living; it invites us to see the universe working through us. Storytelling also knits the community together. It records or recreates the collective history and transforms actor and listeners alike into communal witnesses.”

Creating the spaces and tools for storytelling is beneficial to all community members that engage in this practice.

This past September, Nick Schneigert, a veteran, Northern Illinois University student and contributor for the Northern Star, interviewed a number of fellow NIU Veterans Club members. Eight years out, they reflected on where they were when the September 11th attacks occurred.

Another university, Penn State, offered a spring 2009 section, Narrative, Oral History, New Media Technologies, which was "was designed to teach student veterans how to use video and web technologies in order to chronicle the stories and experiences of the Iraq War." The product of that work, Back from Iraq: The Veterans' Stories Project, is now online.

[Ironically, while this class was in session, the university itself was embroiled in a controversy involving a video its Office of Student Affairs produced. The school later apologized for its portrayal of returning student veterans as aggressive and threatening to professors. The incident highlights the precarious balance educational institutions must strike to ensure their campuses are secure and students and faculty are safe (in an era where school shootings have become far too common), and the need to understand and welcome returning veterans.]

Student Veterans of America has an interactive chapter locator. And, while doesn't appear to be updating its blog anymore, this list of known campus veterans organizations might help in finding veterans in your community. Reach out to them -- and listen to their words.

Other groups are also providing storytelling spaces:

Healing happens when the burdens of war can be shared by the greater community. The mission of the Welcome Home Project is to bridge the gap between civilian and military worlds through the production and distribution of the documentary film, Voices of Vets. The film will be used to inspire programs which are based in the understanding that true healing for veterans requires awareness, acceptance and active participation by the people in local communities nationwide.

It features poems from vets returned from Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam and their family members. Lost in all the talk PTSD, depression, suicide, divorce, etc., is the need for the civilian public to step forward and to receive veterans home, along with everything they bring with them. This documentary is an example of how this can be done in local communities.

The Library of Congress' Veterans History Project has also been capturing the stories of war, both the current and previous eras.

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